This is the dual post for both my A-to-Z challenge and for WEP. First, A-to-Z, as it is much shorter. For the today’s letter R, the obvious selection for a speculative fiction writer would be the word ROBOT. The word was first introduced to the English language by a Czech science fiction writer Karel Capek in his 1920 play R.U.R. Here is my cover for a sci-fi book about robots.
Busy fellows, aren’t they?
And now my WEP sci-fi story as my entry for the WEP Apr 2021 challenge. The protagonist, Neville, is a young Fleet cadet, suspended from the Academy for his discipline infractions. He is serving on a transport ship, the Mariposa, which carries refugees from their disaster-stricken planet to their new settlement destination. The captain assigned Neville to act as her deputy. A sort of a policeman, which terrifies Neville, a known Academy prankster, to no end. You could read the previous entry about Neville here.
Everyone was staring at a huge holo screen, suspended above the ceiling of the spacious cargo hold. A thousand people raptly absorbed the geography of their new home, the planet Simel. Dozens of different conversations hummed beneath the loud clear voice of the narrator.
On his catwalk circling the hold above the people’s heads, Neville smiled in satisfaction. He had come up with this enterprise on his own, and Captain Moss had approved. Before their evacuation runs started, he had combed the interplanetary net for documentaries about Simel and compiled several one-hour vids, each one outlining one aspect of the planet. Climate. Geography and biology. History. Cities. Laws. Culture highlights. Now, he showed one film per day to the refugees in all the cargo holds, and they seemed to enjoy it.
“It is wonderful of you to let us learn of our new home this way,” a woman had told him during their previous trip. “We thought we would have to sign up the indenture contracts with one of the corporations. They offered before the refugee quotas came through from all the colonies. Now we don’t have to be indentured. We can start our new lives free on Simel. We watch your movies each morning, and it feels like a freedom morning every time. Thank you, Neville.”
She had even kissed his cheek, before he managed to duck, and Neville remembered his acute embarrassment. He didn’t deserve her gratitude. He didn’t do anything special except compiling a bunch of vids from the already existing material. He was simply doing his job, being the captain’s liaison with the passengers.
He scanned the hold one more time, taking in all the heads turned in the same direction. Everything seemed in order. He could move to the next hold. Then his gaze snagged on something jarring. No, not everyone was looking at the lake scenery on the screen.
A man in one corner turned his back to the vid. He was ruffling in his duffels. Were they his duffels? Neville frowned in doubt. He had always had good memory for faces, and he didn’t remember this man in this hold. His berth was surely in another cargo hold. What was he doing here?
Thievery in progress, Neville decided and sped silently along the gallery towards the problematic corner. His rollers, equipped with suppressors, made no noise. The gallery was out of limits to the passengers: no stairs led up from the hold floor, so the thief didn’t look up.
Neville slid down one of the sliding poles and propelled himself towards the thief. “What are you doing?”
“Bug off,” the man snarled without looking up.
“That’s not yours!”
The man straightened. The pockets of his jacket bulged. “Oh, it’s you, welp,” he drawled. His eyes narrowed in derision. Abruptly, he swung at Neville.
Something flashed between the man’s fingers, and Neville’s Academy training took over before he registered the illegal weapon. He dropped, rolled, and sprang up with his stunner in his hand. He didn’t think. He fired.
The stunner buzzed, enveloping the thief’s head in a shimmering nimbus for one short moment. The man gulped and crumbled, his knife clanking on the hold’s metal floor. The fight took less than one minute, but too many people swiveled their heads to look.
An angry sound rose in the hold, overpowering even the sonorous comments from the vid. More heads turned, like a domino wave. Neville cursed inwardly. That could become ugly fast. He raised his wrist-com to his lips to call the captain, then hesitated. He should be able to deal with this problem himself. Besides, what could she do? She didn’t have an army standing by. She only had the bridge crew, two engineers, and a medic. And Neville.
As a compromise, he sent a command to his communication drone, always hovering unobtrusively below the ceiling and recording, to transmit to the captain’s station. Then he faced the crowd.
A man and a woman reached him first. “This is our bedroll and our luggage.” The man eyed the thief at Neville’s feet. “What’s happened?”
The woman clutched at her partner’s arm, her eyes stormy.
“I saw him riffling through your bags,” Neville said. “I remembered that he has a berth in another hold. When I asked what he was doing, he attacked me with a knife. I stunned him.”
Neville bent to pick up the knife – a common plastic blade. They had a scanner at the ship’s entrance and scanned all the boarding passengers for weapons, both power-based and projectiles, but the scanner wouldn’t register a cheap plastic knife. Obviously, a mistake they needed to correct.
“Do you know him?” Neville nodded at the thief who was already stirring on the floor. Neville’s stunner was at its lowest setting. He squatted beside the unconscious fellow and went through his pockets. His hand came out full of weird metallic gadgets, shaped like tiny eggs. His other hand still gripped his stunner.
“Those are ours!” the woman cried. “Our prototypes. He stole them.”
The man’s fists bunched. He swore a filthy obscenity and stepped closer.
“Here.” Neville poured the little eggs into the woman’s waiting palms before diving into the thief’s pockets for more. When the pockets were empty, he straightened.
“These little things are our future,” the woman muttered.
“Thank you for assistance,” the man said stiffly, glaring at the moaning thief. “Now go away. We’ll deal with this.”
“No!” Neville inserted himself between the thief and his furious would-be victims. “The only one who has the rights to administer justice on this ship is the captain. You can’t do it yourself.”
“Yeah? And who is to stop me? You?”
“Yes. I’m the captain’s deputy. Everything in this hold is being recorded and transmitted to the captain. She can segregate this hold from the rest of the ship in a matter of seconds. She can stop oxygen delivery and pump in a sleeping gas. She can even jettison this section from the ship. You don’t want to start a mutiny, and that means obeying my orders.”
Neville stared into the man’s eyes and willed him to comply. The vid commentator kept prattling about Simel golden seashore. Behind the irate man who confronted Neville stood the entire hold, over a thousand people. If they chose, they could tear him apart. His heart thumped wildly. His stunner would be no help here. He was mostly bluffing about the sleeping gas and the jettisoning, but he couldn’t let this man to punish the thief himself.
The man swallowed. Some of his friends produced soothing noises. His woman put a hand on his shoulder. Finally, he stepped back. “Fine,” he grumbled. “But make sure the captain knows.”
“I will.” Neville nodded and called for a loader robot to carry his prisoner to the brig. What would the captain say about this escapade?